Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 31: Some Fundamental Convictions, Part 3: Conscience

The third conviction, which is one that I wish to emphasize, concerns the realities or parts which make up the sacramental sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. Some of these realities are acts of the penitent, of varying importance but each indispensable either for the validity, the completeness or the fruitfulness of the sign.

We head into a discussion of sacramental Penance as we continue with Some Fundamental Convictions. Remember, this is part of an extended section 31.

Catholics in the reading audience will also recall that the Rite of Penance includes four major steps: contrition of the penitent, confession of sins, absolution by the confessor, and an act of satisfaction by the penitent. In this post, we’ll deal with the first of these. Pope John Paul II reminds that the awareness of sin is not an inherent religious attitude. Recognition of wrongdoing is human. Bad things happen in the world. Sometimes a human being has a self-awareness that she or he is responsible.

First of all, an indispensable condition is the rectitude and clarity of the penitent’s conscience. People cannot come to true and genuine repentance until they realize that sin is contrary to the ethical norm written in their in most being; (Even the pagans recognized the existence of “divine” moral laws which have “always” existed and which are written in the depths of the human heart, cf Sophocles (Antigone, w. 450-460) ant Aristotle (Rhetor., Book I, Chap.15, 1375 a-b)) until they admit that they have had a personal and responsible experience of this contrast; until they say not only that “sin exists” but also “I have sinned”; until they admit that sin has introduced a division into their consciences which then pervades their whole being and separates them from God and from their brothers and sisters.

Calm and sincere, rather than anxiety–how would you assess this preferece?

The sacramental sign of this clarity of conscience is the act traditionally called the examination of conscience, an act that must never be one of anxious psychological introspection, but a sincere and calm comparison with the interior moral law, with the evangelical norms proposed by the church, with Jesus Christ himself, who is our teacher and model of life, and with the heavenly Father, who calls us to goodness and perfection.(On the role of conscience cf what I said at the general audience of March 14, 1984, 3: Insegnamenti VII, 1 (1984), 683)

If feeling sorry for wrongdoing and experiencing a certain alienation with others is not inherently Christian, then what does Christianity offer the one who has committed a wrong? I’d think the Holy Father was suggesting that Jesus and the Church offer a certain clarity about many moral and ethical issues. Jesus offers encouragement, that a greater sanctity is possible with our reliance on God and an imitation of his way of life and living.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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